How I almost didn’t become a management consultant and learnings to build your career
Choosing a career: Fox and Hedgehog and why I became a management consultant
From early childhood, I was curious to learn new things. New things excite and I enjoy learning. My inclination is what Greek poet Archilochus said is like a fox someone who likes to learn many things rather than a hedgehog who likes one thing but in depth. Foxes like to learn new things all the time in sufficient depth and move to related adjacencies or even unrelated topics and then connect the dots. The hedgehog prefers to be a specialist and sometimes a super-specialist. Both foxes and hedgehogs have their own strengths and weaknesses and can do well in a consulting career. The reason I am recounting the fox and hedgehog analogy is because it helps explain the career choices I took in my career as a management consultant.
But I almost never became a consultant
Early on, the career choices I made were to minimise risk — so after my bachelor’s degree in commerce I was planning to become a chartered accountant but was fortunate to be selected for the MBA programme at IIMA. I went with the flow and pursued the finance stream at b-school (It built on my commerce degree) and I got selected to join Richardson Hindustan Ltd (now Proctor & Gamble: P&G) as a management trainee in finance.
At P&G in the first few years I learnt a lot but then it plateaued for a while as often happens. Then I got opportunity to shift to consulting which I was always keen on because of the intensive and continuous learning environment it provided and a lot of variety in work.
However, it was a risky move at the time- I was joining A.F. Ferguson & Co (AFF, now part of Deloitte) laterally and would have to compete against those who had joined a few years earlier from campus and had already honed their consulting skills. Moreover, I had agreed to join at a salary slightly lower than what I was already getting at P&G.
In the end it turned out a good decision and the years I spent with AFF were enjoyable professionally and I had the opportunity take up totally new jobs with the firm nearly every 3 years.
Career Learning 1
In choosing your career there will be pressure to follow the money or past capabilities but it is best to choose a career that fits in with your passion and gives you an opportunity for continuous learning. Discovering a career that fits with your passion is not easy. It is therefore best to start with experimenting, trying new things and building new skills early in your career to help discover what you are passionate about. Chose a company which is known to invest in developing its people, is a winner in a growth industry or helps you master and ride on a disruptive trend.
Growing in your Career
If you chose to work with a consulting firm as I did, even as you build your technical capabilities, you look for paths that can take you to be successful in this career i.e. to becoming known among clients and the wider market in your area of consulting expertise and eventually becoming a partner in the consulting firm (which provides higher level of freedom and responsibility).
Many chose to build their technical capabilities by specialising in one functional area (the hedgehog route) but I took a circuitous and more stressful (fox route), moving across specialisations laterally from Finance, Organisation & HR to Strategy, even as I moved up the consulting ladder. In hindsight, this helped me learn and grow continually and helped me connect the dots across functional areas when I became a strategy consultant and later when I was overseeing consulting practice areas.
Career Learning 2
In your career continue to broaden your competency areas and make them relevant for the future. Specialisation is essential but building new competencies in adjacent areas can help enhance your fungibility and help you move into new roles.
As well-known author David Epstein has argued, in today’s complex and rapidly changing “wicked world” a lot of innovation happens by connecting the dots from adjacent areas, it is therefore important to build what he calls Range or a broader range of capabilities or skills.
At some stage of your career you may have to change jobs
In the last part of my career at AFF I had many opportunities to join new MNC consulting firms which were entering India at that time, but I always said no to head-hunters without exploring the opportunity. This was because I was doing well, enjoying my job and was very comfortable in the work environment at AFF. However, finally when PricewaterhouseCoopers approached me to start their Strategy & Change consulting practice I agreed.
Career Learning 3
In your career, embrace change and continue to understand new trends in the marketplace rather than face the effects of these later.
In my case, by saying no head-hunters I did not get to understand that the consulting landscape was changing fast and AFF was no longer the leading consulting firm I had joined.
Do not say no to opportunities just because you do not have all the competencies required to succeed in the new role. Building new competencies is an intrinsic requirement of today’s world. When I joined PwC and at a later date IBM, I was worried about on my lack of technology understanding or technology consulting experience which was a growth area. However, I quickly refocused my effort to building a technology capability dimension. This did not mean I became a tech geek, but I built expertise on how technology could disrupt businesses and improve business operations and performance. As Professor Cal Newport has said, “It’s really hard to be passionate about a skill you don’t have yet. Passion is often a product of hard work, not a driver of hard work. “
Career Learning 4
Remember, you have to adapt to the requirements of a new position or job and understand the new rules of success. Past success is no guarantee for the future if you do not adapt to the new rules.
At both PwC and IBM there was need to build a new consulting practice area from scratch. This required a different approach from managing and growing a large existing consulting practice area I was managing at AFF. Each job had its own requirements of success. By adapting, focussing on the job to be done, you can succeed.
Technical capabilities are necessary but not sufficient for career growth
Career Learning 5
To grow up the consulting ladder from a functional consultant to a partner besides new competences like business development and client management there is need to
build soft skills (e.g. Communication, interpersonal, negotiation, collaboration, etc.). Having a strong technical expertise is necessary but not sufficient to have successful career in almost any field you may take up.
Make Investments in building new capabilities, personal brand and relationships
Career Learning 6
Job performance is essential for a successful career but not sufficient. Periodically, take time out from your busy schedule to plan your career over next 3–5 years. Over a long career of 35–40 years to smoothen the path to success invest in continually future proofing your capabilities. Be clear that this is your responsibility (not of your company) as ultimately you will face the consequence of any non-action.
In addition, it is important to invest in creating your “personal” brand (in the physical and digital world) as well as in building a strong network of professional relationships (within your current organisation and wider eco-system of client/customers, industry associations, business partners, etc.)
Early in my consulting career I learnt the importance of creating a personal brand in the media. It happened by chance as business journalists approached to share my insights on topics of interest to them. I did not say no to them even though this required me to squeeze time from my working day to speak to them and be accessible to them when they called. Over time I learnt how to manage media relationships and diversify my media presence and media management capabilities from print to broadcast media and finally social media, each transition required investment in new skills to be effective.
When I think back over my career, there are number of relationships that I built which helped reinforce my personal reputation as management consultant and as a person. In your relationships be what Professor Adam Grant has called a “giver”: be generous in sharing your knowledge, career advice and coaching, offering help in ways possible, etc. Helping others can over long term drive our success.
Remember your career is a marathon and not a sprint